While looking for the free online text of one of my favorite books, I happened upon Jeanette Winterson’s review of Renegade: Henry Miller and the ‘Making of Tropic of Cancer.’ Winterson is not pleased with author Frederick Turner for not answering the central question that she feels is raised by Tropic of Cancer‘s enduring popularity, that being, “Why do men revel in the degradation of women?”
I guess it is a pity that this book has been as influential as it has been, because here it is held up as offering some perspective on the “male mystique” of the author, or even of all American men. There are some interesting parallels between Miller’s inability to connect his own whoring with the ills of the capitalist machine against which he rails with such venom, but such connections are probably lost on most readers unfamiliar with various social theories.
Anyway, all of this, I feel, is very much missing the point. What I liked about that book was its bald honesty, and Winterson’s review made me question the interplay between various movements, including the feminist movements, and literature. What is literature? Is it the duty of literature to make the world a better, more ideal place? Should we shame literature that portrays the world in its current ugly state, that does not strive to change the way things are, but merely reflects them? Is the only good literature activist literature?
What I mean here is, if Henry Miller, the fictional protagonist of Tropic of Cancer, really was a frequenter of whorehouses, then so what? If such places exist, and such men frequent them, then in what way is it incorrect to write about the mindset of such men in a book? The reason why I liked this book so much is because I know such men, have grown up alongside them, heard their tales of degradation. To actually have a narrator laying out his imperfections for me was a welcome respite from the unbelievable characters who dominate so much of fiction. He may be wrong, but at least he’s not lying to me.
And I am not sure the prostitute is so innocent in this discussion because Miller doesn’t always portray himself as some user of women’s bodies. If anything, he is the sucker who falls for the con of what they are selling. The character in the book digs through garbage pails searching for something to eat. But when accosted by prostitutes, he gladly gives up his last pennies for the promise of pleasure. Here, he reveals himself to be a fool. This begs the question, who is using whom? I think theprotagonist here is no champion at all — he is degraded himself. The whole world around him is degraded, and he is just a mere part of this degraded setting.
Of course, once the book is in print, it is open season for critiques, including Winterson’s. But I am grateful to Miller for writing so openly, and poetically, about the Paris he encountered. I urge other authors to write with such honesty.